Hugo Chavez suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls for his referendum on dictatorship. He unexpectedly lost a narrow plebiscite that would have made numerous changes to Venezuela’s constitution, including those that would have allowed him unfettered ability for re-election and personal control over most of Venezuelan public life. But did he become the ultimate winner in this loss?
President Hugo Chavez suffered a stunning defeat Monday in a referendum that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely and impose a socialist system in this major U.S. oil provider.
Voters rejected the sweeping measures Sunday by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent, said Tibisay Lucena, chief of the National Electoral Council. She said that with 88 percent of the votes counted, the trend was irreversible. …
Chavez said his respect for the outcome should vindicate his standing as a democrat.
“From this moment on, let’s be calm,” he declared. “There is no dictatorship here.”
Well, not yet, and that’s due at the moment to this particular vote. Chavez has maintained popular support through a period of increased socialist operation and aggregation of personal power. He expected a ringing endorsement of steps that would have taken Venezuela even further towards a dictatorship, but instead found out that Venezuelans have limits on their tolerance for tinpot fascism.
Having expressed those limits, does this election vindicate Chavez? If the results stand, has he not shown himself bound by the electoral process and therefore no dictator? Chavez almost had a no-lose situation in this sense; if he won the referendum, he’d get even more power thrust into his hands by popular acclaim, and if he lost, he’d prove himself a democrat, at least for now. The only way he could lose is if he claimed victory in a tight election, as everyone would have assumed he manipulated it.
The important calculation for Chavez is not a single data point — one election — but the thrust of his policy over the long term. He has shut down media outlets critical of his rule. He has nationalized industries. Chavez regularly sings the praises of Fidel Castro and makes no secret of his plans to turn Venezuela into a Socialist state using Cuba as a model. If he is not in fact a dictator at the moment, thanks to the momentary intervention of the Venezuelan people, he certainly aspires to that status. And the Venezuelan people need to keep him from realizing that goal.
Chavez should worry about this, too. The blinders are off, and Venezuelans have decided to push back against the creeping dictatorship. Chavez can’t bully them into compliance, and anti-Americanism has reached its limit. Does he have any other tricks in his bag?
UPDATE: Fausta and Alberto seem rather happy ….